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Sometimes, the atmospherics obscure the art in the current Raleigh Ensemble Players Theatre Company presentation of Irwin Shaw’s turgid antiwar play Bury the Dead (1936). The idea of dead soldiers speaking to the living for whom they laid down their lives is positively ancient—at least as old as the Greek Anthology (a.k.a. Anthologia Graeca), which inspired Edgar Lee Masters to write Spoon River Anthology (1915), while the unprecedented carnage that characterized World War I still chewed up various parts of Europe.
Set in “the second year of the war that is to begin tomorrow night,” Bury the Dead opens with a crusty Sergeant (Jeff Buckner) supervising a burial detail of gripers (Jaret Preston, Ashlee Quinones, Danny Chappuis, and Joel Horton) as it attempts to inter six of the newly slain who made the supreme sacrifice for their country. When these dead soldiers (Ryan Brock, Chris Milner, Eric Morales, Robert Bartusch, Thomas Porter, and Rob Jenkins) suddenly stand up in their graves, like silent sentinels, it shocks the burial detail, perplexes their Captain (Jim Zervas), and panics the Generals (Chris Brown, Larry Evans, and Shawn Smith) who ordered the attacks that turned this cannon fodder into corpses. This miraculous battlefield resurrection also baffles a Doctor (Zach Thomas), and a Priest (Thomas again) and a Rabbi (Sam Fuchs) can find no prayer or religious ceremony to make the upstart dead lie down again in their graves.
Finally, someone suggests that the wives and sweethearts of each of these six soldiers (Susannah Hough, Mariette Booth, Whitney Griffin, Beth Popelka, Maggie Rasnick, and Marilee Spell) be brought to the battlefield in order to persuade the dead to accept their grisly fates. When the dead finally speak during these six sometimes unpleasant reunions, it is poignant, but pretty predictable “War Is Hell” and “It’s Rich Man’s War and a Poor Man’s Fight” stuff right out of the antiwar primer.
The problem for the audience is that these conversations are conducted at night on a darkened battlefield set created by Thomas Mauney and Miyuki Su, with light shining in the audience’s eyes, the actors mostly standing still in silhouette with their backs to the viewers, and the actresses playing the spouses and girlfriends facing the REP patrons and roaming the stage. Thus, the atmospherics generated by REP artistic director C. Glen Matthews to heighten the drama of Bury the Dead frequently obscure the art of individual performances. Moreover, this series of emotionally charged conversations inclines toward mawkish melodrama, because some the six dead weren’t the happiest of people in life. Thus, the fact that their premature deaths deprived them of decades of misery in difficult relationships is not as much of a tragedy.
In addition to the Army brass and the clergy, a battlefield Reporter (Lormarev Jones) and her Editor (Zach Thomas) provide more grist for Irwin Shaw’s satirical mill. But Shaw’s sermon about the senseless slaughter of the young in pointless wars is so heavy handed that it may prove emotionally fatiguing for the average theatergoer. Performed mostly in the dark, and without an intermission, Bury the Dead ran about an hour and 50 minutes last Friday night, but it seemed longer.
The first show of REP’s 25th anniversary season featured outstanding performances by Mariette Booth, Ryan Brock, Chris Brown, Susannah Hough, Rob Jenkins, Lormarev Jones, and Marilee Spell. But many of the fine points of the other performances were lost in the dark, in the Fog of War.
The Raleigh Ensemble Players Theatre Company presents Bury the Dead Thursday-Saturday, Sept. 14-16 and 21-23, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 17, at 7 p.m. in Artspace Gallery 2, 201 E. Davie St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($12 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel). 919/832-9607 (TTY 835-0624) or http://www.realtheatre.org/BTDreservation.html [inactive 10/06]. Note: The Sept. 15th show will be a fully accessible performance, with audio description provided by Arts Access, Inc. (http://www.artsaccessinc.org/). Raleigh Ensemble Players: http://www.realtheatre.org/. International Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=2302. Irwin Shaw: http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?ID=6464 (International Broadway Database) and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0789758/ (International Movie Database).